Bruce Hoffman

Triangulating Today's News

Afghanistan continues to dominate today’s foreign affairs and national security news. Fortunately, there is a unique concatenation of stories in three of the country’s major newspapers that together provide excellent insight into the continuing security challenges that the U.S. and its Afghan partners face.

In “U.S. General Cites Goals to Train Afghan Forces,” veteran New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller’s writes how Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV, the American commander responsible for training Afghanistan’s security forces, believes that 141,000 new Afghan soldiers and officers must be recruited over the next fifteen months if Afghanistan’s security capacity is to be aligned with President Obama’s ambitious stated withdrawal deadline. Even so vast a number, which takes into account a prudent 50 percent attrition rate through discharge, desertion, death and injury, it would not be until October 2011—three months after the President Obama’s ambitious deadline—that General Caldwell judges Afghan security forces capable of effectively taking over from U.S. troops. Unlike with Iraq, one of the main problems that the U.S. faces in training up the Afghan recruits is illiteracy.

Meanwhile, according to the Times, the German government has announced plans to end conscription and reduce the size of its armed forces by nearly 100,000 men. By paring down to no more than 163,000 personnel, “The Bundeswehr will be smaller and more capable,” Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg claims. He provided no comment on how this would affect Germany’s overseas commitments, but a smaller military would likely be less able to contribute meaningfully—at least in terms of boots-on-the-ground—to counterinsurgency, cum nation-building efforts such as in Afghanistan.

The need for sufficient forces in Afghanistan is made manifestly clear by the article, “Insurgent groups rouse fear before Afghan elections.” The Washington Post’s David Nakamura details how

Across Afghanistan, especially in the south and east, increasingly brazen attacks by anti-government groups have cowed many candidates for the 249 lower house seats as well as voters. Afghan election officials announced last week that 938 of the country's 6,835 polling centers will remain closed on election day because of security concerns, leaving 1.5 million of the country's 13 million registered voters unable to participate.

Such a situation is lamentable, not just because of Afghan citizens deprived of their right to vote by the threat of violence, but also because this lack of security creates greater opportunities for election fraud—including bribery, ballot stuffing and other forms of deliberate tampering. This threatens to raise anew the same doubts and questions that surfaced a year ago in Afghanistan’s national elections and which undermined American trust and confidence both in President Hamid Karzai and in President Obama’s Afghanistan policy as well.

Finally, Siobhan Gorman, who reports on intelligence and national security for the Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article that provides a rare look at the role of the CIA station chief in Kabul in the prosecution of the Afghan counterinsurgency. According to Gorman, “The CIA is expanding its presence there by 20% to 25%, in its largest surge since Vietnam. The several hundred officers assigned to Afghanistan outnumber those in Iraq at the height of that war.” It thus appears that while U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan may be set to decline, the number of American spies, spooks and other intelligence operatives there will likely increase.